We can run but we can’t hide. At least not online. *deep sigh* The NY Times took another fascinating look at electronic indelibility this past weekend in their article “Erasing the Digital Past,” which doubles as a follow-up to the post we did a little while ago on the same subject. This is fertile ground indeed. When I worked as a youth minister, one of our most effective incriminating illustrations for original sin was that of a DVD of one’s life, subtitled with one’s thoughts. The kids would always gasp. Keep it secret, keep it safe! Well, it would appear that the need for such illustrations may be becoming a thing of the past – with the Internet serving that frightening function in real time. Sitting at our computers every day, we are inadvertently constructing an ongoing, frequently inconvenient chronicle of our public and private lives, one that exposes the fruitlessness of our attempts to manage our condition (the whack-a-mole analogy that Ms. Allison uses below has also been used in countless youth group talks). Of course, this is all very good news for those like Good News, as it clearly begs the question, how does one translate Psalm 103:12 for the digital age?  “As far as DOS is from Java, so far has he removed our search results from us”? Wakka wakka wakka:

At first, some tried manipulating the Web results on their own, by doing things like manually deleting photos from Flickr, revising Facebook pages and asking bloggers to remove offending posts. But like a metastasized cancer, the incriminating data had embedded itself into the nether reaches of cyberspace, etched into archives, algorithms and a web of hyperlinks.

After failing to rid the negative sites on their own, most turned to a new breed of Web specialists known as online reputation managers, who offer to expunge negative posts, bury unfavorable search results and monitor a client’s virtual image.

Reputation.com… is among a growing corps of online reputation managers that promise to make clients look better online. In an age when a person’s reputation is increasingly defined by Google, Facebook and Twitter, these services offer what is essentially an online makeover, improving how someone appears on the Internet, usually by spotlighting flattering features and concealing negative ones.

“The Internet has become the go-to resources to destroy someone’s life online, which in turn means their offline life gets turned upside, too,” said Michael Fertik, the chief executive of Reputation.com, which is in Redwood City, Calif., and is among the largest in this field. “We’ve reached a point where the Internet has become so complicated, vast and fast-paced, that people can’t control it by themselves anymore. They now need an army of technologists to back them up online.”
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Social networks, online comments and oversharing online have created a threat to everyone’s reputation and privacy,” said Mr. Fertik of Reputation.com. “Now people are trying to figure out how to put that toothpaste back in the bottle.” ONCE something is online, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to delete. So tweaking one’s online reputation usually boils down to gaming the search engines. Image-conscious people with an understanding of the Web’s architecture can try doing it themselves, by populating the Web with favorable content… But these tactics have their limits, especially when the Web sites in question are popular and optimized for search engines.

One such site would be Gawker, the New York media blog, which had been known to pluck characters out of relative obscurity and turn them into villains. Starting in 2009, Gawker published a series of snarky items about Julia Allison, a former dating columnist for Time Out New York magazine and a social media expert. Readers were soon acquainted with her videos of her publicly arguing with a boyfriend at the time, personal e-mails sent to Gawker editors and photos of Ms. Allison in lingerie which were posted online.

Ms. Allison tried tinkering with the search result herself, but became so fed up that she once announced that she was “quitting” the Internet. “It’s more like whack-a-mole than anything else,” said Ms. Allison, who has been in talks with Reputation.com to work or online presence. “Hit one, and another pops up. I have spent hours and hours attempting to solve the nearly impossible problem of a maligned online reputation.”

“The hardest thing is when you have a very unique name,” added Don Sorenson, the founder of Big Blue Robot, an online reputation management company in Orem, Utah, that works with corporations. “If you have a last name like Smith or Brown, you’re going to be better off, but if you have a unique name you will definitely have your work cut out for you.”

At that point, some people have been known to legally change their name.

It hasn’t become that bad for Ms. Allison. She compares the scar to her online reputation to a large tattoo: “Technically, it’s possible to remove it, but it’s painful and expensive. Plus, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever remove it 100 percent.” The entire experience has made her more cautious about what she shares. “I swore too much and there are a few lingerie photos I wish were private now, but they are the relatively average mistakes of youth,” she said. “Unfortunately, they are now mistakes that will follow me in perpetuity.”